College campuses are offering more counseling to help deal with the problem. Is overprotective parenting a cause?

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The first year of college can produce mental health challenges for many students/Photo: Getty Images

The transition to a new school — and life — can be difficult for anyone, but as first-year students start classes at colleges across the country this fall, it may be bit more difficult for a surprisingly large proportion of them.

About 1 in 3 college frosh reported having suffered from mental health disorders in the years leading up to their arrival at college, according to a new survey.

That’s true not just of students in the United States, but also of students in eight industrialized countries around the world, the World Health Organization states in its study.

Researchers reported the average age at which these issues start is about 14 years.

That lines up with other reports of rising prevalence of mental health issues among college students.

A 2014 survey found that 33 percent of students surveyed reported having suffered from serious depression.

A 2016 study reported that 39 percent of students were struggling with at least one mental illness.

That latter study also found the percentage of students who had considered suicide in the past year jumped from 6 to 8 percent in previous years to 11 percent.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) has found that students report that anxiety and depression are among the biggest factors negatively affecting their academic performance.

Such mental health issues can even lead students to drop out.

Campus counseling centers often offer free or low-cost services to students. But with increasing numbers of students seeking their help, there may only be so much they can do.

“If 1 in 3 college students were seeking mental health services, our counseling centers wouldn’t be able to manage,” Keith Anderson, incoming president of the ACHA and a psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, told Healthline.

Anderson told Healthline he estimates about 15 percent of college students utilize their campus counseling centers.

He also noted the 1-in-3 figure was higher than past estimates he’d seen and thought it might be a bit too high.

That might have to do with the size of the survey.

In the United States, only three colleges (all private) participated. Only 739 students responded, 28 percent of whom reported mental health issues.

Other countries had higher participation, and some had higher rates.

About 22 percent of 4,490 Belgian students reported mental disorders compared to 27 percent of 4,190 Mexican students and almost 40 percent of 2,046 Spanish students.

Nearly half of Australian students reported problems, but that was among only 529 respondents.

But the gist of the results — that an increasing number students are struggling with these problems — holds true.

“We’ve seen dramatic increases at the college counseling centers,” Anderson said.

Anderson wasn’t sure whether this has something to do with college-bound students or is part of a trend across the population.

“I’ve been having that debate with a number of my colleagues at the moment, as to whether it’s something about college or a developmental issue for people across the age group,” he said.

“But I haven’t seen anything to indicate that the general population is having the same sort of increase.”

Colleges as well as the U.S. Department of Education are struggling to keep up with the problem.

The National Council on Disability has found that students are frequently placed on counseling waiting lists due to high demand.

They also note that financial aid policies penalize students who choose to lessen their course load.

The organization says more training is needed for identifying and helping students with mental health disabilities. They note that community colleges — particularly in rural areas — are the least equipped to deal with this emerging crisis.

Anderson thinks part of the solution might be to look “upstream.”

As an example, he uses this scenario: You see someone drowning in a river and pull them out of the water. Then another drowning person comes by, and you pull them out. Then another drowning person comes by.

Eventually, Anderson said, you should go upriver and find out what’s causing so many people to almost drown.

For him, that drowning often starts due to a lack of resilience caused by overprotective parents.

This phenomenon includes parents wanting to go on job interviews with their children, asking the school to call their kid to wake them up, or the one child who came into the counseling center traumatized because he’d seen a mouse in his apartment, Anderson said.

“So when something small comes up, it becomes a mountain right away,” he said. “Lack of resilience is, I think, a major source of this. There’s been this trend of parents over-coddling.”

Others have fingered social anxiety brought on by new technologies, new economic pressures, and other emerging factors.

The National Council on Disability has recommended increasing students’ resilience as a means of reducing their risk of mental health disorders.

And schools such as Stanford have started “resilience projects” to build and study resilience among their students.

“So we’ve got to forge some alliances at secondary schools and start retraining parents how to parent,” Anderson said. “If nothing is done, they’re going to keep coming downstream — and it’s difficult to manage as is.”